Sister: Tribeca Review

Tribeca Film Festival
Good intentions don't make for good storytelling in this heavy-handed family drama.

An immature actor-screenwriter is suddenly forced to assume custody of his much younger, emotionally troubled adopted sister in David Lascher's debut film.

Combining a sappy family drama storyline with impassioned diatribes about the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs to adolescents, Sister is unsuccessful in both departments. While obviously well-intentioned, this highly personal film from debuting director and co-screenwriter David Lascher is too hamfistedly executed to have the desired effect. Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it mainly comes across as a message-laden Lifetime television movie.

Reid Scott of HBO’s Veep plays the central role of Billy, a struggling actor-screenwriter who suddenly finds himself the caretaker of his adopted, much younger sister, Niki (Grace Kaufman), after their father (Dan Lauria) is suddenly killed in an automobile accident and their emotionally unstable mother (an over-the-top Barbara Hershey) is hospitalized with severe depression.

The pot-smoking, immature Billy, who’s been working on his screenplay for the last two years, is naturally upset about the demands placed on him by the troubled 11-year-old who was recently expelled from boarding school after she assaulted a classmate. Even less happy about the situation is his wife, Melissa (Serinda Swan), who’s mainly obsessed with the ticking of her biological clock. Quickly tiring of the surly interloper, Melissa suddenly exits the marriage, leaving the ill-equipped Billy alone to care for his sister.

Deciding that Nikki’s steady diet of antidepressant and anti-ADHD drugs is the cause of her unruly behavior, Billy impulsively takes her off all her meds, attracting the ire of the psychiatrist (John Heard) at the school in which he’s managed to place her. Although not without its resulting complications, including a half-hearted suicide attempt, the strategy pays off, with Niki suddenly blossoming -- making new friends and pursuing her artistic aspirations despite the irrational rage she exhibits when Billy secretly enters one of her drawings in a school competition. She also readily agrees to her newly imposed diet of healthy foods and even begins practicing yoga.

Billy also finds himself a new person in the process of dealing with his enforced responsibilities, managing to finally finish his screenplay and pursue a romance with the sexually aggressive teacher (Nadine Velazquez) of one of Niki’s new classmates. But the familial bond is threatened when their mother, her emotional health apparently restored as a result of shock treatments, suddenly declares that she wants Niki back. Cue the inevitable custody battle as Billy desperately fights to prevent his sister from once again falling into their unstable mother’s clutches.

Despite the admirably nuanced performances by Scott and Kaufman as the siblings whose relationship becomes more like that of a father and daughter, Sister never manages to be remotely convincing. Suffering from melodramatic plots twists, clunky expository dialogue and its awkward shoehorning in of anti-medication arguments, it lurches in fits and starts toward its all-too- predictable, sentimental conclusion.

The film was apparently based on the director’s real-life experiences. But that unfortunately doesn’t make it feel any more authentic.

Tribeca Film Festival (Sister Films)

Cast: Reid Scott, Barbara Hershey, Grace Kaufman, Serinda Swan, Nadine Velazquez, Illeana Douglass, John Heard

Director: David Lascher

Screenwriters: Todd Camhe, David Lascher

Producers: Peter Winther, David Lascher, Todd Camhe

Executive producers: Matt Luber, Anthony Callie, Scott London, Warren Lichtenstein, Jeff Altman

Director of photography: Eduardo Enrique Mayen

Editor: George Folsey

Production designer: Kathrin Eder

Costume designer: Carrie Grace

Composer: Billy Jay Stein

Not rated, 109 minutes